Friday, June 24, 2011


From the Patt Morrison page

Warning: The subject of this post is somewhat macabre. If you're squeamish, you might want to skip this one.

From ossuaries to urns, one thing is certain, humans care for our dead. Egyptians mummified their Pharaohs because they believed they needed their bodies preserved for the after-life. That doesn't seem to be the case in most cultures, however. Most people seem to think that whatever preserves the person after death, if anything does, is gone from the body with death. Yet, in spite of that, we seem to recognize that the now dead body is an important part of who they were, and we honor that. Some of us bury them in graveyards facing east, others scatter their ashes in the sea. But, in some way, we honor them.

It wasn't surprising to me, then, that when Patt Morrison discussed a new funeral process on her show, reactions were mixed. The new process,called Alkaline Hydrolysis, liquefies the bodily tissues of a body, leaving behind only bones. It is, reportedly, a much more "green" process, than cremation. 

Some callers metaphorically shrugged their shoulders - "if its better for the environment, then why not do it, I'm gone from the vessel anyway." One caller in particular, however, a Jewish woman, was incensed, saying it was one of the most disgusting things she could imagine. The body is sacred, created by God, and should be treated as such.

She isn't alone in this reaction, as the Patt Morrison page reports "Catholics across the nation have raised ethical concerns" regarding this new process.

So, what do we do with this? I have to admit I'm not entirely certain. As a Christian,  I believe not only that God created all things, but that He became incarnate. The very creation of man by God gives the body a certain dignity, but the fact that God Himself shared in it elevates that dignity immeasurably.  What is more, I believe in the Resurrection of the dead. This means I believe that one day my body shall be raised to live in restored Creation with God. This means I am intimately tied to my body.

Of course, I recognize that bodies decay. In many ways, Alkaline Hydrolysis is simply sped up decay. The body I am in the Resurrection will not be of the selfsame matter that my body now is. Heck, my body in ten years won't even be the selfsame matter as it is now. So, I'm not an ancient Egyptian, I don't believe my body as such has to be preserved. Cremation and urns seem fine to me, as do many other funeral processes.

Yet, I worry that we are already far too inclined to view our bodies as things external to ourselves. Far too often we draw a line between our identity and our flesh - seeing the latter as merely a vessel we happen to inhabit. This line of thought is wrong, and part of me things this process carries something symbolic with it that reinforces this view.

In the end, I'm inclined to think that this process is fine so long as we find a way to imbue it with dignity. If we liquefy the bodies, dump the refuse down the drain and throw the bones in the trash, that seems wrong to me. We have to recognize the importance of our bodies. But maybe we can restore the practice of using ossuaries? Or find some new an inventive ritual to show that we recognize we are dealing with one of the most fundamental elements of a human being. But I'm not sure.

What do you think?